Reforming Non-Punitive Responses to Sexual Offending
By Adam Shajnfeld∗ and Richard B. Krueger
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Clovis Claxton, who was developmentally disabled and wheelchair-bound after contracting meningitis and encephalitis as a child, was twenty-four years old and living with his family in Washington state in 1991 when he exposed himself to the nine-year-old daughter of a caregiver. Although he had the mental capacity of a ten- to twelve-year-old child, he was charged with first-degree child molestation and served twenty-seven months in prison. When his family moved to Florida in 2000, Claxton was listed as a sexual offender on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement website, but the website inaccurately indicated he had been charged with the rape of a child. Claxton had not been charged with any other offense since his release from prison, but sheriff’s deputies in Florida did take him into custody at least five times for threatening suicide.
In 2005, brightly-colored fliers were dropped into mailboxes and pinned to trees around Claxton’s neighborhood, where he lived in an apartment adjoining his parents’ house. A short time before, a county commissioner had urged that warning signs be posted in neighborhoods where convicted sex offenders live. The fliers displayed Claxton’s picture and address, downloaded from the Florida website, and the words “child rapist.” Claxton, distraught and fearing for his life, called the sheriff’s office and said he wanted to kill himself. He was taken for an overnight psychiatric assessment, but released the next day. The following morning he was found dead, an apparent suicide, with one of the fliers lying next to him. Alan Groome was eighteen years old when he was convicted of a sex offense. He was paroled after serving a number of years behind bars in the state of Washington. Upon his release, he moved in with his mother, but they were evicted from their apartment when residents learned of his past. They then moved in with his grandmother, but Groome was forced to leave when police officers knocked on the doors of 700 neighbors, handing out fliers with his address and photo.
Groome became homeless, begging for money. “I got the feeling no one cares about me, so why should I care about myself and what I do?” said Groome. One detective described Groome as “a man without a country.” His parole officer loaned him money because he believed Groome had “a lot of potential.” A little over two years after being released from prison, Groome had not been re-arrested but was living in a homeless shelter, looking for employment.
As will be discussed, the United States Supreme Court has distinguished between society’s punitive and non-punitive responses to sexual offenders, granting society more discretion and affording sexual offenders few protections in conjunction with non-punitive responses. Although all agree that sexual offenses should generally result in punitive sanctions, including prison sentences, the socalled non-punitive responses to sex offenders currently employed by society are not only very punitive in nature, but they are also largely unhelpful in curbing and may even be increasing sexual offending. Sex offender registration and notification requirements, for example, place offenders in physical danger, force offenders out of their homes and cause them to lose their jobs, and create public hysteria.
These requirements often bear little relation to the risk posed by the offender. The label “sex offender” can refer to anyone from a child rapist to an adult involved in a consensual, albeit incestuous, relationship with another adult. These requirements are typically insensitive to differences in motivation and intent, the nature of the offense and its impact on the victim, and the likelihood of recidivism and risk to society. Further, these regimes rarely allow sex offenders who successfully undergo treatment or who can be demonstrated to be highly unlikely to reoffend to be relieved of these requirements before at least many years have passed, if at all.
Legal and societal responses should take better account of what is currently known about sex offenders and be changed accordingly. This Article describes the characteristics of sex offenders (Part II), discusses various registration and notification requirements (Part III), explores Constitutional challenges to registration and notification laws (Part IV), addresses the civil commitment of sex offenders (Part V), analyzes the various problems with current responses to sex offenders (Part VI), reports current options for treating sex offenders (Part VII), provides various recommendations for implementing a more appropriate societal response to sex offenders (Part VIII), and offers some concluding remarks (Part IX).
II. Characteristics of Sex Offenders
“Sex offender” is a legal, not a psychological term. There is no uniform definition of a sex offender. One who engages or attempts to engage in a sexual act with a minor, or who commits or attempts to commit aggravated sexual battery against a person of any age, is widely considered to be a sex offender. In many states, persons who have been convicted of possessing child pornography are also classified as sex offenders, as are adults engaged in consensual incest, persons who indecently expose themselves, and statutory rapists (for instance, a twentytwo year old who has sex with her sixteen year-old boyfriend). The legal definition of a sex offender includes a very wide range of offenders. From a psychological perspective, though, sex offenders are extremely diverse. The psychological profiles, recidivism rates, and effective treatment modalities of such offenders vary greatly. To appropriately respond to these individuals, a better understanding of these variations is needed.
For example, it is important to distinguish between paraphilic sex offenders and nonparaphilic sex offenders. Paraphilias are psychiatric disorders defined as recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors generally involving 1) nonhuman objects, 2) the suffering or humiliation of oneself or one’s partner, or 3) children or other nonconsenting persons that occur over a period of at least 6 months.
To be diagnosed as having a paraphilia, depending on the type of paraphilia, the person must also either have acted on the urge or there must be resulting clinically significant distress or impairment in important areas of functioning. Those who develop paraphilias tend to lack social skills and suffer from depression, substance abuse, or other co-occurring psychiatric disorders. Far more men than women develop paraphilias.
Paraphilias need not involve illegal behavior. Transvestic fetishism, where a heterosexual male engages in cross-dressing, is not a crime. Further, not all sex offenders suffer from paraphilias. For example, many rapists commit sex offenses out of anger and desire for domination, not for sexual gratification. In one study involving thirty-six convicted male sex offenders, only 58% could be diagnosed with a paraphilia.
Regardless of these variations, as of 2006, there were roughly 566,700 registered sex offenders in the United States. This figure, however, is not a reliable measure of the actual number of sex offenders, as sex offenses are extremely underreported. At the same time, this number can be mistakenly read to indicate the number of current active sex offenders in this country, a conclusion that fails to take into account the effects of treatment and monitoring, and the fact that many of these offenders are relatively unlikely to reoffend.
One of the most complicated and contested issues regarding sex offenders is that of recidivism. Calculating their rate of recidivism is difficult for a number of reasons. First, as noted, sex offenses are underreported. Second, sex offenders may continue to re-offend for many years, and thus recidivism rates differ depending on the length of time considered. Third, recidivism differs substantially depending on the type of sex offender in question. For instance, sex offenders who molest a family member (i.e., those who commit incest) are less likely to reoffend than those who molest non-family members. Similarly, one study found recidivism rates for rapists and child molesters to be 18.9% and 12.7%, respectively, over an average four to five year follow-up period. Collapsing all sex offenders together into a single category and making generalizations about this diverse range of offenders using this aggregate determination is likely to result in substantial mischaracterizations regarding the risk of re-offending for many of these individuals.
Even though lumping the recidivism rates of all sex offenders together is unhelpful in assessing the risk posed by these offenders, it does shed light on the dubiety of popular claims about sex offender recidivism. One meta-analysis of recidivism studies of over 23,000 sex offenders found the rate of recidivism to be 13.4% on average for a four to five year follow-up period. Another study, from the United States Department of Justice, found recidivism for sex offenders released from prison to be 5.3% for a three-year followup period. In contrast, a Department of Justice report of recidivism rates for nearly 300,000 released prisoners found that 13.4% of those imprisoned for robbery were rearrested for robbery after release, and 22% of those imprisoned for assault were rearrested for assault following release, all within a three-year follow-up period. Thus, while recidivism rates are difficult to measure and reported results vary, and there are numerous factors that make recidivism for a particular individual more or less likely, the recidivism of sex offenders is neither inevitable nor nearly as high as popularly believed.
A number of studies have reported higher recidivism rates for sex offenders, most prominently the so-called “Abel study” where 561 non-incarcerated paraphiliacs reported that they had committed a total of “paraphilic acts” against 195,407 victims. The Abel study suffers from a number of serious problems. First, “paraphilic acts” are defined very broadly, including fetishism, homosexuality, sadism, and masochism. These behaviors, though, are not illegal when they involve a consenting adult, and homosexuality is no longer considered a paraphilia. In fact, the Abel study hints at this confusion, at one point using the term “victim/partner.” Thus, it is doubtful that the high rate of recidivism is reflective of what is currently thought to be a sex offense. Second, the median values of the number of victims per paraphiliac are significantly lower than the mean (average) values, which indicate that a small percentage of paraphiliacs are responsible for a disproportionately large amount of the sex offenses. Broad generalizations from a study such as this one fuel panic, but do not accurately reflect the fact that, although there are outliers who are extreme offenders, recidivism rates are low for most sex offenders.
III. Registration and Notification Laws
In 1994, Congress passed the Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. While not imposing mandatory obligations on the states, the Wetterling Act was a significant milestone because it provided significant financial incentives for the states to adopt various provisions pertaining to sex offenders. For example, it required sex offenders to register for at least ten years with authorities following release from prison or placement on parole, supervised release, or probation. Further, state officials were expected to collect and maintain information about offenders, such as their name, home address, photograph, fingerprints, offense history, and documentation of any treatment received for mental abnormality or personality disorder. In 1996, the Wetterling Act was amended to include a notification provision, known as “Megan’s Law,” which allows states to disclose information collected through registration for “any purpose permitted under the laws of the State.” Megan’s Law, like many other broad sex offender laws, was enacted in the politically and emotionally charged aftermath of a brutal act against a child. Currently, all fifty states have enacted some type of Megan’s Law.
Recently, Congress passed a new version of the Wetterling Act as part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. The bill expands the sex offender registration and notification requirements previously imposed on the states. First, it broadens the definition of sex offender, divides sex offenders into three tiers (tier III being the most serious) based on the severity of the crime for which the offender was convicted, and requires that all sex offender registries include the offender’s name (including any alias), physical description, current photograph, Social Security number, residential address, vehicle and license plate number, DNA sample, fingerprints, criminal offense, and criminal history; the name and address of any employer; and the name and address of any school that is being attended.
Second, it requires all jurisdictions to make virtually all sex offender registry information publicly accessible via the Internet and creates a national sex offender website. This generally forces states to broadly disseminate information on every registered sex offender, not just those who pose the greatest risk of re-offending.
A few items cannot be posted, including the identity of any victim, the Social Security number of the sex offender, and any reference to arrests that did not result in conviction, and a few items are left to the discretion of the state, including any information about a tier I sex offender convicted of an offense other than a specified offense against a minor, the name of the employer of the sex offender, and the name of an educational institution where the sex offender is a student.
Third, the bill imposes a registration and Internet notification requirement of fifteen years for a tier I sex offender (with a reduction of five years if a “clean record” is maintained), of twenty-five years for a tier II sex offender, and of life-long duration for a tier III offender. A tier I offender is required to re-register in person at least once a year, a tier II offender every six months, and a tier III offender every three months.
For purposes of comparison, the following are some existing examples of state registration and notification regimes. In Washington, a sex offender can be relieved of the requirement to register ten years after the offender has either been released from confinement, or, if there was no confinement, ten years from entry of judgment and sentence. In Florida, the earliest a sex offender who offended as an adult can be relieved of the requirement to register is twenty years after the offender has been released from sanction, supervision, or confinement, whichever is later. To be relieved of this requirement after twenty years, the offender cannot have been arrested for any felony or misdemeanor (not just a sexual or related offense) since his release, and a court must grant the offender’s petition for relief. In Washington and Florida, even if a sex offender no longer poses a risk of reoffending, he must still register as a sex offender until at least either ten or twenty years, respectively, have passed.
Registration, though, did not necessarily mean that the community would be notified about the sex offender. Under the previous Wetterling Act, states were required to notify the community of certain offenders, while notification for others remained optional. State-sponsored Internet sites were routinely used as a means to provide this notification.
Many states, however, made information regarding all sex offenders accessible via the Internet as well. The amount of information available on a particular offender varied from state to state, but all states included the offender’s name, offense, physical characteristics, and age. Florida’s Internet sex offender database also included the offender’s photograph and last known address.
Some states employed risk-tiers, with offenders classified by their risk of reoffending. For example, Rhode Island law provided for three risk-tiers: low risk, moderate risk, and high risk. The level of community notification, if any, depended on the offender’s classification. Law enforcement agents were notified of low risk offenders.70 For moderate and high risk offenders, Internet notification was permitted.
While community notification today is typically provided via the Internet, this need not be the exclusive means. Louisiana, in addition to having a searchable Internet database of sex offenders, also has perhaps the strictest and most comprehensive notification requirements of any state. Upon release from confinement, a sex offender must supply his name, address, crime information, and photograph to all residences and businesses within a one-mile radius in a rural area, or 3/10 mile radius in an urban area, of the offender’s residence. The offender must also notify all adults also residing in his place of residence and the superintendent of the school district in which he resides of his status. A court may even require the offender to wear special clothing indicating that he is a sex offender.
IV. Constitutionality of Registration and Notification Laws
The Supreme Court has issued two major rulings on the constitutionality of sex offender registration and notification laws, both in 2003.
A. Procedural Due Process: Connecticut Department of Public Safety v. Doe
In 1999, a person (referred to as John Doe) required to register as a sex offender under Connecticut law, filed a federal lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 198378 against the Connecticut agencies responsible for administering the State’s sex offender registry. Connecticut’s law required certain classes of sex offenders to register, and provided for community notification of the presence of these offenders without regard to the registrant’s degree of dangerousness to the community.79 Instead, the registration requirement was linked to whether they had been convicted of certain specified sex offenses.
Doe asserted that this registration requirement harmed his reputation and altered his status under state law. Doe alleged, inter alia, that the failure to provide him with a preregistration hearing to determine if he was dangerous violated his procedural due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment because he was deprived of his liberty interests without a hearing.
The Supreme Court found no violation of procedural due process. The Court reasoned that procedural due process only requires a hearing on the existence of a particular fact (or facts) when such fact is relevant under a state statute. Here, as the statute did not claim that the list was comprised of dangerous sex offenders, but instead merely claimed to be a list of sex offenders regardless of level of danger, Doe was not entitled to a hearing to determine his dangerousness.
In dicta, the Court noted that one could still challenge the State’s law on substantive due process grounds, an issue not brought up nor addressed in the case.
B. Ex Post Facto: Smith v. Doe
The Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution85 prohibits the government from imposing punishment for an act that was not a crime at the time it was committed, and from imposing more punishment for an offense than was prescribed by law at the time the crime was committed.
In 1994, Alaska passed its Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA). SORA contains a registration requirement and provides for community notification. Alaska makes much of the information it gathers available on the Internet. Of primary relevance to this lawsuit, however, was that SORA was made retroactive, thereby encompassing sex offenders who committed their crimes before SORA was enacted. Respondents John Doe I and John Doe II, both convicted of sex offenses before passage of SORA and then, after the passage of SORA, required to register under it, brought an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 challenging SORA as it applied to them as a violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause. The Supreme Court found no violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause.
The primary question as far as the Court was concerned was whether SORA imposed additional punishment after the fact (i.e., after the crime was committed). The Court determined that if the legislature intended to impose punishment through its legislation, then its retroactive application was indeed a violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause. If the legislature intended to enact a civil (nonpunitive) regulatory scheme through its legislation, however, there was an Ex Post Facto violation only if the statutory scheme was so punitive in its effect as to negate the legislature’s stated intent. The Court stated that it was required to be deferential to the legislature’s stated intent, requiring the “clearest proof” of punitiveness to overcome a presumption that the legislature had accurately depicted the nature of its legislation.
In the case before it, the Court noted that the Alaska legislature had stated that its intent in enacting SORA was to protect public safety. As a result, the Court found that the stated intent of the legislature was not to impose punishment on sex offenders with the registration requirement. The Court then proceeded to determine whether the legislation had sufficient punitive effect to undercut this characterization.
The Court discussed five of seven factors previously established, which, while not “exhaustive or dispositive,” provided “useful guideposts” in determining if a law is sufficiently punitive in effect to overcome the stated intent of the legislation. The factors were whether the regulatory scheme: (1) has been historically/traditionally regarded as punishment, (2) serves the traditional aims of punishment, (3) imposes an affirmative restraint or disability on the offender, (4) has an alternative (non-punitive) purpose to which it may be rationally connected, and (5) is excessive in relation to the alternative purpose.101
Under this analysis, the Court found no punitive effect sufficient to overcome the legislature’s stated intent. First, while SORA might resemble colonial shaming punishments—in which the offender was held up before others, forced to confront them face-to-face, and sometimes expelled from the community—SORA was substantively different, as public shaming often involved corporal punishment and, even when it did not, involved more than mere dissemination of information. Second, the Court found that SORA imposed no physical restraint on the offender, nor did it restrain the activities sex offenders may pursue, such as employment. Third, while the statute might deter crimes, the mere presence of a deterrent effect did not render legislation criminal. Fourth, SORA was determined to have a legitimate, non-punitive purpose, namely, that of promoting and ensuring public safety, and its execution was rationally connected to this purpose. Fifth, SORA was not considered to exceed its non-punitive purpose, even though it was potentially overinclusive by failing to mandate individual determinations of dangerousness, because Alaska could rationally conclude that a conviction for a sex offense provided evidence of a substantial risk of recidivism.
C. Other Potential Constitutional Challenges
By casting Megan’s Law statutes as nonpunitive (i.e., they do not impose punishment on sex offenders), the Court has also precluded a constitutional challenge based on an Eighth Amendment “cruel and unusual punishment” theory. In addition, although the Supreme Court has yet to address these issues, federal courts of appeals have generally rejected attacks against registration and notification statutes based on purported violations of substantive due process,109 privacy, and equal protection. In light of the Court’s unwillingness to strike down sex offender registration and notification laws in the two cases it considered, sex offenders would likely face an uphill battle pursuing these other challenges before the Supreme Court.
V. Civil Commitment
Another means widely thought to limit the danger posed by sex offenders is to impose on them civil commitment through “sexually violent predator” (SVP) laws. Under this approach, sex offenders are confined to a treatment facility, typically following the completion of their prison term, based on a finding that “because of a mental abnormality or personality disorder, [the person] finds it difficult to control his predatory behavior, which makes him likely to engage in sexually violent acts.” “Mental abnormality” or “personality disorder” is frequently defined to mean “a congenital or acquired condition that affects a person’s emotional or volitional capacity and renders the person so likely to commit sexually violent offenses that he constitutes a menace to the health and safety of others.” This approach employs the civil, rather than the criminal, process and allows a person to be involuntarily hospitalized if, following a hearing, that person is found to pose a risk of self-harm or harm to others. This approach permits the state to confine the person until he or she no longer poses a danger to society.
In Kansas v. Hendricks, the United States Supreme Court upheld a Kansas statute that allowed the involuntary civil commitment of a sex offender who, due to a “mental abnormality or personality disorder,” is likely to engage in “predatory acts of sexual violence.” In Hendricks, the respondent was a convicted sex offender whose pedophilia was considered to constitute the requisite “mental abnormality.”
Five years later, the Court issued a second ruling that clarified that Hendricks does not require that the state prove that sex offenders are completely incapable of controlling themselves before the state may commit them. In Kansas v. Crane, the Court established that the state is only required to prove that it would be “difficult” for the person to control his or her dangerous behavior as a predicate to civil commitment.120
As of 2006, nineteen states had civil commitment statutes for certain sex offenders. After an initial rapid proliferation of such laws, enthusiasm for additional enactments has waned. In the decade of the 1990s, fifteen state programs were passed; since 2000, only four states have enacted such programs. Reasons for this vary, but prohibitive cost, lack of ability to control costs, better alternative uses of funds and resources, lack of release back into the community resulting in an ever increasing number of individuals committed, and lack of demonstrated efficacy are all cited. As of December 2004, 3,943 people had been confined under these laws, with only 427 of them having been conditionally released (most of them) or discharged.
Civil commitment is arguably the most draconian of the so-called non-punitive sex offender legislation in that it confines, for an indeterminate and potentially life-long period of time, offenders who have already served their criminal sentences. It confines these offenders essentially because of crimes they might commit in the future. Civil commitment should be used as a last resort and only for offenders whose dangerousness has been established on a case-by-case basis.
VI. Problems with the Current Responses to Sexual Offending
Current sex offender legislation regarding community notification in particular needs to be more focused. The broad range of offenders encompassed by these laws detracts attention and resources away from those offenders that need the greatest attention, monitoring, and supervision, namely, offenders who pose the highest risk of recidivism. As discussed, individuals who commit incest or statutory rape, or who possess child pornography, are often considered to be sex offenders for purposes of community notification. While the putative reason for sex offender legislation is a regulatory one–protecting citizens– notification regimes are not risk-discriminating. For instance, adult relatives who engage in consensual sexual intercourse with one another pose little, if any, risk to the community, yet they can be subject to registration and notification requirements. This broad scope needlessly scares community members by overstating the presence of what are perceived to be dangerous offenders, places burdens on offenders who pose little or no risk of harming anyone, and drains financial, law enforcement, and administrative resources.
Notification also makes it difficult for offenders to obtain housing and employment. In a study involving thirty convicted sex offenders subjected to community notification, 83% reported that they had been excluded from a residence and 57% reported that they had lost employment as a result of their status as sex offenders. In another study, 300 employers were surveyed as to whether they would hire ex-convicts, including offenders who had committed sexual crimes against children or sexual assault against adults. The overwhelming majority of employers surveyed stated that they would not hire the sex offenders. Job stability, however, significantly reduces the likelihood that a sex offender will re-offend, making notification counterproductive in this respect.
Given that landlords are reluctant to house sex offenders, not surprisingly many are homeless. Ironically, this makes monitoring them more difficult. In addition, with sex offenders forced to move from place to place, even state to state, it becomes harder for offenders to maintain needed ongoing relationships with mental health professionals and family members, friends, or community members and organizations that can provide support services, which in turn may enhance the likelihood of recidivism.
Vigilantism has also been associated with community notification laws. When communities are notified about the presence of a sex offender, some community members may harass, intimidate, or even violently attack the offenders. In one instance, a teenage offender received death threats and found his dog decapitated on his step. In another instance, arsonists burned down the home where a released sex offender was supposed to live. One study found that amongst 942 sex offenders in Washington state subject to community notification, there were thirty-three reported incidents of harassment of some form against the offender or his family. While this number may seem low, one must keep in mind that such incidents may be underreported, as offenders may not want to call further attention to themselves or their families, and that even the possibility of such vigilantism can cause significant worry amongst offenders and their families and hamper treatment efforts.
Another common result of notification is isolation. Social ostracism that the sex offender experiences may push him farther from integrating with society, decrease social skills, and make re-offense more likely.
While community notification increases public anxiety, an article published in October 2005 noted that in the ten years that such laws have been in place, there has not been a single study that has shown reduced recidivism of sexual violence attributable to notification.136 In December of that same year, a report from the Washington Institute of Public Policy did find that sex offenses had decreased in the years since Washington’s passage of sex offender legislation that contained registration and notification provisions.
There are a number of problems with drawing conclusions from this decrease, however. First, as the report acknowledges, Washington has increased the length of incarceration for sex offenders during this period. If offenders are incarcerated for longer periods of time, they have less opportunity to offend. Thus, the decrease in recidivism could be attributable to increased length of incarceration. Second, even if one ignores the incarceration issue, the notification regime in Washington is risk-discriminating in that it provides for community notification only for moderate and high risk offenders, thus obviating some, but not all, of the inefficiencies and counterproductive components of notification regimes. Those notification regimes that are not risk-discriminating and that are not accompanied by treatment, employment, and housing for offenders are unjust and inefficient. Third, it is notable that with fifty states having enacted community notification laws, this is the only study that we have located that suggests some effect in terms of reducing recidivism. Clearly, more research on the impact of these laws is needed.
Civil commitment as a mechanism for responding to sexual offenders also carries a heavy price. First, a general right to be free from physical restraint and various liberty interests are afforded by the Constitution. There are of course situations where these important guarantees can be tempered, but such restrictions should be limited. Second, civil commitment is very expensive. The cost of housing and treating a civilly committed person for one year in Washington is $138,000. Overall, the cost of operating special facilities for the commitment of sex offenders at the national level is estimated to be $224 million per year. Thus, if there are cheaper or less restrictive ways to achieve the goals of civil commitment, namely, protect public safety and promote rehabilitation, they should be pursued.
While there is no known cure for inappropriate sexual thoughts and behavior, there are treatments that can significantly reduce their strength and occurrence. Treatments include non-biological therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, and biological therapies such as surgical castration and pharmacological (drug) therapy.
Among the non-biological treatments for sex offenders, cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most common.145 During cognitive-behavioral therapy, offenders may obtain social skills training, sex education, cognitive restructuring, aversive conditioning, and victim empathy therapy.
Social skills training attempts to provide the offender with social competency, so that the individual may pursue appropriate social interactions; sex education informs the offender of the risks and practice of sexual behavior; cognitive restructuring helps the offender avoid cognitive distortions that may have provided the offender with a justification for his behavior; aversive conditioning pairs painful, annoying, or unpleasant experiences, such as a bad smell, with an offender’s inappropriate sexual fantasy; and victim empathy therapy helps offenders understand the harm they have caused to the victim and that the victim is also a person with feelings. Offenders may also undergo relapse prevention therapy, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy, where they learn how to identify problematic thoughts and behaviors and stop their progression.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, while often successful in reducing recidivism amongst sex offenders, does not always work, either completely or at all. Thus, it is very important for a mental health professional to determine when cognitive-behavioral therapy is appropriate, and to monitor its effectiveness.
Surgical castration involves removal of the testes, which has the effect of significantly reducing circulating testosterone. While surgical castration does decrease sex drive, it does not always do so completely. Further, many view surgical castration, which they associate with the eugenics movement that sought to sterilize those with undesirable traits thought to be hereditary, with fear and skepticism. Additionally, the reduction of sex drive achieved through surgical castration can be overcome with the use of exogenous androgens, such as testosterone, which may be obtained surreptitiously. Nevertheless, some authorities believe that surgical castration may become more common, as it has achieved the lowest recidivism rate of any treatment.
Pharmacological therapy, however, is a viable option for many, particularly those with paraphilias. One of the most noteworthy studies on pharmacological therapy for sex offenders tested the efficacy of triptorelin, a drug that reduces male testosterone levels, in decreasing the deviant sexual desire and behavior of thirty men. All of the men suffered from paraphilias, with twenty-five of them suffering specifically from pedophilia. Before triptorelin use, the men reported an average of forty-eight deviant sexual fantasies per week (with a standard deviation of ten) and five incidents of abnormal sexual behavior per month (with a standard deviation of two).
During treatment, which involved monthly intramuscular injections of triptorelin, supplemented with regular supportive psychotherapy (one to four sessions a month), all of the men had a prompt reduction in paraphilic activities, with the maximal reduction in the intensity of their sexual desire and symptoms occurring after three to ten months with the exception of one man in whom it was achieved after two years. All of the men reported that their sexual desire decreased considerably, that their sexual behavior became easily controllable, that their deviant sexual fantasies and urges disappeared completely, and that there were no incidents of abnormal sexual behavior during therapy. Once the maximal effects of treatment were achieved, there were no sexual offenses reported by the men, by their relatives, or by a probation officer. Symptoms returned among those men who stopped treatment, including three who reported intolerable side effects. Further, for three of these men who were subsequently given an alternative medication (cyproterone acetate), two were subsequently prosecuted and received prison sentences for sex crimes. Case studies of another testosterone-reducing drug, leuprolide acetate (brand name Lupron), reported successful results similar to those of triptorelin.
Currently, medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) is the drug most commonly used to reduce serum testosterone levels. MPA is given by injection and need only be administered once every three months. Each injection costs about $30 to $75.170 Gonadotropin releasing hormone agonists, such as depot-leuprolide acetate, though, are gaining a foothold because they have fewer adverse side-effects and are considered more effective than MPA. Although leuprolide acetate is significantly more expensive than MPA, considering its treatment potential, it may well be worth the cost.
Pharmacological therapies are generally given to those with paraphilias, as they have stronger and more intense deviant sexual desires than other sex offenders. As noted, however, pharmacological therapies may induce unpleasant or harmful side effects or for other reasons may be resisted by sex offenders. While the testosterone-reducing effects of drugs like MPA and leuprolide acetate may be overcome by taking exogenous androgens, standard laboratory analyses of blood and urine can be used to test for the presence of such androgens. It is also important to note that pharmacological therapies need not be life-long; these therapies may be employed for short-term treatment that allows offenders to obtain some measure of control over their sexual impulses and enables other forms of treatment, such as behavioral therapy, to become effective.
However, pharmacological therapies have their limits. For instance, drugs that reduce testosterone levels, like leuprolide acetate and MPA, may not have any effect on nonsexual violence. Thus, for offenders without paraphilias or whose primary problems are non-sexual, or for offenders with paraphilias and nonsexual violence problems, behavioral therapies, either alone or in conjunction with pharmacological therapies, are necessary.
Before better means to reduce the occurrence of sexual offenses can be established, the potent obstacle of the political process must be recognized. In a representative democracy, elected legislators are responsible to and dependent upon the support of their constituents. Considering the significant inaccuracies in, and overall frenetic nature of, popularly held beliefs and attitudes regarding sex offenders, it is not surprising that legislators often feel they must adopt measures driven by fear rather than sound science or public policy.
In this vein, a Police Chief in Des Moines, Iowa, arguing for the repeal of an Iowa law placing residency restrictions on certain sex offenders that increased their homelessness and subsequently decreased the ability to monitor their whereabouts, worried that state legislators would not re-work the counterproductive statute out of political cowardice. This fear needs to be overcome and the following recommendations implemented.
(1) Current medical practice has embraced “evidence-based medicine,” which is “the conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients.” This approach integrates “individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence [drawn] from systematic research.” There is a similar need for “evidence-based legislation.” Although recidivism rates are frequently bandied about in the course of legislative debates over proposed sex offender legislation, there is a need for more accurate and precise information on risk and treatment that will enable more appropriate decisions to be made. In general, educational and training programs regarding sex offenders should be made available to legislators and their staff to inform their decision-making.
(2) Sex offender legislation should be preceded by careful study and a projected cost-benefit analysis, rather than rely on speculation and public fears. In addition, any legislation that is enacted should always include a provision mandating and funding a cost-benefit analysis of the legislation and its effects. Building “sunset” provisions into this legislation can provide an opportunity for a systematic review of the cost-benefit analysis and the impact of the legislation, and can be considered in determining whether to modify the legislation.
(3) Sexual offending is a complex behavior and understanding and redressing it is a difficult challenge. Accordingly, proposals to reduce this criminal behavior should be carefully considered and studied. To promote this effort, multidisciplinary commissions should be formed with governmental support and charged to fully evaluate the effects and integration of sex offender-related legislation. These commissions should include mental health professionals, lawyers, criminologists, judges, and legislators. Such commissions should address sex abuse as both a criminal justice and a public health problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Assembly (the decision making body for the World Health Organization) have declared violence to be a public health priority, and The Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers has suggested that this framework be extended to sexual violence. The public health model is used to complement the criminal justice approach and strives to prevent the occurrence of crimes through the identification of risk factors and the development of interventions to address these factors. A public health approach can develop not only appropriate post-offense responses, but also generate broader, more systematic, long-term changes that can help prevent the occurrence of sexual abuse and the development of sex offenders.
(4) Risk level classifications should be incorporated into society’s responses to sex offenders, particularly with regard to their community notification systems, and a graduated response employed that limits the use of the most “punitive” mechanisms to those offenders that have been shown to pose the greatest risk. This would enable offenders who pose minimal risk and are unlikely to reoffend to reintegrate into society, as well as motivate all offenders to seek and comply with needed treatment programs to obtain this level of classification. Mental health professionals can now identify factors that are related to recidivism and, using sophisticated, empirically-validated instruments, accurately assess the likelihood of future risk. These instruments should be used, for example, to determine what level of community notification is employed for various categories of sex offenders. Community notification should be tailored to the risk these offenders present.
(5) Legislative responses to sex offending should incorporate incentives that reward offenders who undergo, comply with, and maintain treatment, such as relieving these offenders of some of the obligations and hardships they would otherwise face. As noted, the strictest measures should be reserved for those offenders who pose the greatest, most difficult-to-reduce risk of reoffending, thereby targeting scarce resources and focusing attention in a more efficient and productive manner. Such incentives will further motivate offenders to seek and comply with needed treatment programs.
(6) Less restrictive alternatives (including both behavioral and pharmacological treatment) should be considered before civilly committing a sex offender and, where appropriate, be offered to the offender. Such treatment should be provided free of charge or at least at an affordable rate. The successful employment of these alternatives can avoid the huge costs associated with civil commitment, while enhancing the likelihood that an offender becomes a productive member of society. At the same time, the availability of civil commitment or other mechanisms can help ensure treatment compliance.
(7) Government supported opportunities for offenders to obtain employment, housing, treatment, and support services should be enhanced. Offenders cannot reintegrate into society and develop healthy living habits if they have no income, shelter, treatment, or support. Enhancing the likelihood that offenders must or will continually relocate because they lack these opportunities not only virtually ensures that offenders will not improve and exhibit appropriate behavior, but also makes it more difficult to monitor the offender to enhance public safety.
(8) Resources available to treat potential offenders should receive more publicity. Existing state-sponsored websites, publications, and education programs appropriately highlight the resources available to victims, as well as how people can identify and locate sex offenders. There is little or no attention given to advertising how and where a person with a sexual disorder can obtain competent and confidential treatment that will prevent inappropriate behavior from occurring. Governmental funding should be provided to enhance awareness of these services. Additionally, governmental support should be supplied to ensure that people can obtain these resources even when they lack the ability to pay for these services.
(9) Drug and mental health courts have been successfully implemented in some locations. These courts hear mostly or exclusively drug cases or relatively minor criminal cases involving defendants with a mental disorder, respectively, and have thus developed significant experience and expertise in such matters. Sex offense courts may be a viable mechanism in which judges and parole or probation officers are knowledgeable about sex offenders, the treatment modalities specifically designed for sex offenders, the appropriate mechanisms to prevent recidivism, and how best to monitor and supervise offenders to ensure public safety.
However, there is much debate regarding specialized courts in the literature, and thus the matter needs further study. Regardless of whether such specialized courts are implemented, educational and training programs regarding sex offenders should be made available to judges, as well as probation and parole officers, to inform their decision making.
(10) Because of the limited knowledge and understanding of sex offending, funding and support for research to enhance this understanding is essential. Further research should focus on improving the collection and analysis of recidivism data; studying the effects on recidivism of existing non-punitive responses to sex offenders and possible alternatives; and examining, evaluating, and improving the efficacy of non-biological and biological treatment.
Crafting appropriate responses for sex offenders is no easy task. As they are some of the most hated and reviled members of society, legislators (even those who are well intentioned) fear opposing legislation targeting these offenders, regardless of how misguided the legislation may be. In the long run, however, well-informed and carefully crafted measures will prove more effective than impulsive, ill-conceived responses in reducing sex offenses.
Four principles should guide the development of these responses. First, sex offenders should be recognized to be a heterogeneous group, distinguishable by offense type and risk of re-offense. Second, the law should take into account new pharmacological therapies, such as testosterone-suppressing drugs, as well as other innovations and therapeutic approaches as a means of reducing the likelihood of future offenses. Third, greater efforts should be made to promote offender reintegration into society, thereby improving their chances for successful treatment and diminishing the likelihood that they will reoffend. Fourth, it is critical to assess the effects of such legislation and to invest in research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of sexual violence.
By integrating law and therapeutic efforts, responses can be formulated that prevent future offenses and victimization, offer offenders and potential offenders the optimal opportunity to lead healthy, productive lives, and decrease the cost of sexual offending to society. By implementing the recommendations described above, society can move one step closer to these goals.